'Could you hand me your plate, please?'
Mr. Ages looked up from the book he had placed on the dinner table for a moment and then offered his emptied dish to Mrs. Brisby with an apologetic mumble.
The new quarters occupied by the Brisby family were far larger than their old cement block home had been. At first the widow had cringed a bit at the idea of living so far above ground. She had never really gotten used to heights, no matter how often she had traveled on Jeremy's back. Being able to close her eyes and simply hold on for dear life had, she was convinced, saved her sanity on more than one occasion. Thankfully, she didn't have as bad a phobia as Brutus did. In the end she and the children had settled in the apartment Justin had set aside for them in one of the Great Oak's main branches. It was unexpectedly spacious with three separate levels. The main level was centered on the living room, with a large, round table in the middle and two smaller rooms for food storage and a small but complete kitchen. There were a number of books, copied from volumes in the colony's library, nestled in carved shelves and even a fireplace with a hollowed chimney-tube leading to the outside. How the Rats had managed to allow open fires within their wooden home was still beyond Mrs. Brisby's understanding but the warmth it added had been most welcome last winter.
The main door led towards a wide stairway, which connected the apartment to the rest of the colony and was situated next to a hatch in the floor and a matching hatch with ladder in the ceiling. Elizabeth had her sleeping quarters on the upper level, as well as a small workshop room to prepare for her classed and other activities. The space below contained three bedchambers, one for each of her children. That was, until they would find apartments for themselves.
As Mrs. Brisby picked up the last remaining plates and carried them into the small kitchen, she noted that Mr. Ages and Teresa's oldest son were busy going through the large tome the old mouse had brought with him. The aging physician had made it his personal mission to check on Kir's and the other children's education as often as he could. He knew Teresa was a devoted mother and intent on teaching her offspring as well as she could, but without access to the colony's library, school, and teaching staff she had few resources available for the task. Thankfully, Mr. Ages always found that Mrs. Brisby's grandchildren made up for their lack in teaching aids through their immense curiosity and ambition. Kir had no problem following the text he had brought along.
All the while the Shrew, who had entered the main room again and sat down at the table, eyed both Timothy and Martin with suspicion as they played guessing games with Flynn. Cynthia had gotten up earlier to show Lynn how far one could look through the room's window even at night while letting her ride on her shoulders.
Sadly enough, Teresa sitting glumly next to her husband, who had kept a consoling paw on his mate's arm, dampened the mood somewhat. It was obvious that whatever had occurred at the Fitzgibbon Farm had greatly upset both the young mother and the feral mouse she had fallen in love with.
Having cleaned the last of the dishes Mrs. Brisby pulled up a stool next to her daughter and looked at her with concern.
[Text Wrapping Break]
'Honey, what happened back at the farm?'
Mr. Ages and the others did not want to let the children now how serious the matter was that their grandmother had broached. By prior agreement they had decided to keep the youngsters occupied while listening in to what Teresa had to say in secret. Ears swiveled curiously and glances were cast in between reading book passages, making riddles, and carrying the children around. Even the Shrew, who was not usually one to keep quiet about anything, made a point of centering her attention on the young mice. It was better than getting the children upset and forcing them to go to bed right now would not have worked either. The children were almost unnaturally sharp and could always spot someone trying to hide something, or lie to them.
'They must have come at night, when we had already gone to sleep,' Teresa started softly, her gaze focused on the floor under her paws. 'The Great Owl woke us, landing directly on our house, telling us we needed to get out right away.'
This sounded serious. The old bird had promised to keep an eye on Mrs. Brisby's oldest daughter but to take such direct action the Great Owl would have had to perceive a threat of enormous proportions.
'When we left the house,' the young mother continued, 'the entire farm was already in chaos. The humans had brought dozens of their large vehicles and there were lights everywhere.'
Gregory, who still held his wife's hand, nodded. 'It was almost as bright as day, yet it was still the middle of the night.'
Mrs. Brisby swallowed hard. She remembered the day the humans from NIMH had first come to the Fitzgibbon Farm in an attempt to catch the Rats of NIMH. Back then they had not dispatched nearly as much equipment and had been content to fill the Rosebush with gas. Even back then the vehicle that the Rats explained to her was called a "car" or "van" had been so imposing it had taken her breath away. To think that this time NIMH had returned in an even more frightening manner was hard to accept, or understand.
'What were the humans doing with all these lights?'
'At first we didn't know,' Teresa answered her mother. 'Gregory went off to drag Aunt Shrew from her home. The fields were a madhouse. Everybody was trying to get away, to run from the lights. And there were noises too,' she added, 'noises so loud you cannot imagine. Even the farmer's tractor was never that loud.'
Noting the concerned glances from her other children as well as Mr. Ages', the brown mouse, despite seeing the anguish on her daughter's face, pressed on for more information.
'Was there anything else you remember, honey?'
Teresa nodded with a shudder.
'The Owl had brought Jeremy and his family along and told them to take us away to Thorn Valley immediately. He said that the humans had arrived almost an hour earlier and that they had taken away the farmer and his entire family, including Dragon.'
Mrs. Brisby looked confused, as did the other adults at the table. They could find no sense in why the people from NIMH would force the Fitzgibbons to leave. Why would they hurt other humans?
Not noting the consternation in her mother's eyes the shaking mouse continued her story.
'Then, when we were up in the air, we could see what the humans were doing. They had put up a huge fence, around the entire farm and the fields. Those awful lights were shining all over them. There must have been more than a hundred humans wearing suits that covered them completely, all running around... catching the animals that couldn't get through the fence... so many... the fence... like a spider's web... too tight... no one got through... no one.'
Suddenly Teresa broke down and cried, Gregory holding her tightly to his chest, whispering softly into her ear as he tried to comfort her.
‘They took them all.' she whimpered. 'Our friends... neighbors... couldn't fly... they caught them... one by one!'
Mrs. Brisby put a paw on her daughter's shoulder. Teresa's tears had finally drawn the attention of her children and not even the attempts of their aunt and uncles could keep them from looking at her mother with worry. Their grandmother looked at them kindly and then nodded to Cynthia and her sons.
'Don't worry! Your mother is just feeling sad about leaving your home so quickly. Why don't you let your father and others tuck you in?'
'Can't you make mom happy again, gram?' ventured Kir from the far side of the table while Lynn was trying to get away from Cynthia and run to her mother.
'I will try,' Elizabeth said, still smiling and trying to hide the concern she felt herself. 'Why don't you just go bed and your mother will be with you in a minute, after I cheer her up a bit?'
Lynn was squealing in Cynthia's arms and crying for her mommy. Finally the crème-colored mouse let the child go and huddle in her mother's lap. As soon as she felt the weight of her daughter Teresa stopped sobbing and picked Lynn up, cuddling her tightly.
'I am alright, sweetie, I'm just sad that we had to leave so suddenly.'
Looking up at her mom's face with wide eyes Lynn asked, 'But we're here with gram. Will you be happy again?'
Teresa had to laugh through her tears and raised her youngest child up in the air with a chuckle.
'Of course I will! Look! You make me happy already!'
At that Lynn finally screeched in joy again and Flynn was running over yelling.
'Me too, mommy! Me too!'
A bit relieved Mrs. Brisby squeezed her daughter's shoulder softly, 'I think the little ones had enough excitement for one day.'
'Yes,' sniffed Teresa, now apparently in a much better mood or simply trying not to frighten her own children, 'we better put them in bed or they will keep us up all night, right Greg?'
Nodding vigorously and apparently relieved to see his wife cheering up again her husband turned to Kir and Flynn.
'You heard that? It's time for bed, so up we go to our holiday rooms! And tomorrow you get to see everyone again and maybe even play outside with some of the other kids. Come now! It's bedtime and we've all had a very long and tiring day.'
'Awww!' complained Flynn with a yawn, 'I am not sleepy yet.'
Laughing Gregory scooped up his younger son and gave Kir, who had already gotten up from the table, a ruffle with his free hand, 'Can you believe your brother? Yawns like a badger and says he isn't sleepy. He really is not a good liar.'
Kir grinned and nodded, 'No, I am much better at that, dad.'
Giving his older son a playful shove the wild mouse chuckled, 'Now don't you start with that too, young man! Off to bed we go! Or do you want the others to see me pick you up and cart you off like Flynn?'
On his way to the door Gregory gave his wife, who had already carried their daughter with her, a tender kiss on the cheek and looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Brisby and her remaining children in gratitude.
'Thank you so much for dinner, and helping us with everything.'
Timothy grinned from across the table, 'Anytime, Greg, anytime! You just make sure those little monsters don't wreck both your nerves.'
Overhearing his younger uncle's comments Flynn squeaked from his father's arms, 'I promise I'll be good Uncle Timmy!'
After a few more well-wishes and hugs between Teresa and her siblings and a final embrace with her mother the young family left the Brisby apartment to head for the quarters that had been set aside for them in case of an emergency. As luck would have it none had claimed the apartment directly above the new Brisby home, the one Justin had promised her should the entire family show, so Teresa did not have to go far and risk running into a member of the Rats. Not all of the Rats of NIMH would be pleased to see her back in the colony. Elizabeth sighed as she watched the family head up the stairs and to the large, though no doubt dusty, apartment. She would have preferred them to use the rooms below but, given the situation, knew that this might not have been for the best.
As quiet settled back into the room everybody sat down at the table once more. Looks of concern and fear were exchanged all around and it was Martin who finally broke the silence.
'What in heaven's name could have made NIMH come back, and in such a horrible way?'
Mr. Ages shook his head, 'I don't think we will ever know, unless someone goes back and tries to find out. Whatever the humans have done at the farm, it sounds dangerous.'
Timothy rubbed his chin and then muttered quietly, 'If they are still looking for the Rats, do you think they will have a way of finding us here in the Valley?'
It was the one question weighing on everybody's mind. And it was also the one question that none at the table wanted to even think about, but didn't have the liberty to do so.
'We have to tell Justin first,' mused Cynthia. 'Some of the Rats might start panicking if they hear about this.'
Martin let his head fall into one of his paws and groaned.
'You think they don't already know? This place is a breeding ground for gossip and I bet some of them have seen Teresa and the little ones already. The landing place is all the way on the other side of the colony after all and I bet you ran into some rats, right?'
This second question had been addressed to his mother who nodded sadly.
'Yes, we did see some, and not all of them were the ones who like us.'
'Just great,' sighed Martin, 'I bet they will try to have a Council Meeting tomorrow or the day after where they will run around like a bunch if frightened crickets; or try to get rid of Teresa again.'
Now it was Mr. Ages turn to speak up, and speak up he did with rising anger in his voice.
'Well then they might as well throw me out too. Teresa is a good doctor and we could actually use her right now. Not to mention,' the old rodent added, 'that the majority of the Rats are on our side.'
'I just hope,' wondered Mrs. Brisby, 'that Verilla will not try to make a scene at the Chamber Meeting tonight.'
Looking at the ceiling the white-furred doctor grumbled, 'We might as well wish for rain that won't make us wet.'
Somewhat resigned the widow slowly got up from the dining room table, put on her reading glasses, and nodded.
'We better be on our way to the Meeting then. If we are late then she will be sure to start her riling immediately. It's always harder to seal up a dam after it's been allowed to break completely.'
Getting up as well Mr. Ages rumbled, 'I hope Justin remembered. The last time he was late Verilla spewed enough venom to poison a horse.'
With that in mind Mr. Brisby looked towards her younger son, 'Timothy, you said you wanted to bring Justin something, didn't you? Could you make sure that he remembers about the Chamber Meeting when you do?'
The young mouse slapped his brow so hard he almost dislodged his glasses.
'I nearly forgot about that! Thanks mom! I'll see that he gets there on time.' Timothy jumped up and grabbed the wrapped-up item he had brought with him from the laboratory, passing both his mother and Mr. Ages as he raced out of the apartment, 'Sorry! I better run!'
The old scientist shook his head and held the door open for Mrs. Bribsy, 'After you, my dear.'
So, the two older mice made their way to the Chamber Meeting while the younger one raced towards the distant office of the one who led the Rats of NIMH.
The way from the Brisby lodgings to the Main Atrium took the two mice through many winding corridors, which gave them ample time to talk about what they had learned and what it could mean for tonight's Chamber Meeting.
'I am afraid Verilla will give Justin a hard time again tonight,' sighed the female mouse.
'Well,' replied Mr. Ages, 'it would be no different from any other Chamber Meeting this year. The boy will just have to stand his ground, as usual. It's not as if he is alone in there, which annoys Verilla to no end I'm pleased to add.'
The physician was right of course. Apart from that one particular Chamber Member everybody else greatly approved of the job the young leader of the Rats of NIMH had done so far. It was just aggravating that a single individual could sour a simple administrative session with her silly vendettas.
'I am more worried about what happened at the farm,' conceded the older mouse. 'I did not want to say anymore with your children around, but if what Teresa said is true, something really bad is going on back there.'
'What do you mean?' Mrs. Brisby asked hesitantly.
Mr. Ages took some time to organize his thoughts. He did not want to worry his old friend's widow unduly, but on the other had he valued her too much to withhold his concerns from her.
'Please, I might very well be wrong about this. But it sounded very much like NIMH has decided to capture anything and anyone that might have ever come into contact with the Rats of NIMH. This alone,' he intoned, 'assures me that they are still looking for us, maybe harder than ever. I don't know why, but whatever reasons the humans might have, they can only mean trouble for us.'
Looking through a passing window the brown mouse sounded deeply worried as she posed her next question.
'Do you think they will be able to find us here?'
With a despairing shake of his head the white-furred mouse could only shrug.
'I do not know, I really do not. As far as I know there were few if any clues left behind as to where we decided to move. All of this doesn't make much sense to me right now.' Then, after a few deep sighs, he added, 'A lot of things are happening these days that do not make much sense to me anymore.'
Mrs. Brisby tilted her head.
'Do you mean this strange allergy Martin talked about?'
Groaning Mr. Ages waved his arms around and almost growled his reply; 'Why can't that boy keep his mouth shut for once? I told him not to bother you with this, not until we knew something more about it!'
'Please,' the widowed mouse pled as she put a hand on the doctor's shoulder, 'don't be angry. I asked Martin to tell me when he came home two nights ago and looked so worried. I made him tell me.'
The other just kept on sighing and shaking his head.
'He shouldn't have mentioned it anyway. You have enough to worry about already, my dear.'
Trying a smile on the older rodent Mrs. Brisby insisted, 'Now that he did mention it to me I will probably worry even more if you don't tell me the rest.'
'Alright!' Mr. Ages deferred. 'It is just that we have isolated almost every possible cause for this allergy and nothing appears to fit. There is just no common trait we can nail down. Adults get it, children get it, no matter where they live or work in the colony. There seems to be no common denominator, except that all patients are survivors of NIMH or their offspring. It's not as if it was dangerous,' assured the physician. 'So far the only symptoms are a bleaching of parts of the fur and the skin getting sensitive to light.'
For some reason the female did not believe that matters were as trivial as Mr. Ages was trying to make her believe. Noting her doubts the white mouse rolled up his sleeve.
'Look, I have developed a patch myself, although on my fur it is hard to see. As long as I don't expose the section underneath this thinner white fur to sunlight or other bright light I don't even notice it's there.’
He tried to give her a rare, reassuring smile.
‘Now that Teresa is here maybe she can help us figure this thing out. When they forced her to leave the colony lost a brilliant doctor, after all. Maybe Martin has a point and I do need some added perspective and opinions to find the answers.’
‘Maybe I am getting to old for this. After all,' Ages sighed with a bit of resignation, 'it's not as if this little allergy is the only thing that has me confused these days.'
'Really?' Mrs. Brisby wondered. 'Are there any other problems apart from this?'
Looking somewhat like a little boy who just realized he had stepped from one tiny puddle into a deeper one the old mouse took off his glasses and coughed.
'It is really nothing, my dear, nothing to worry about at all.'
The widow put a small frown on her muzzle and folded her arms.
'Really,' she offered, 'I thought you knew better than to try and lie to me, Thomas Ages!'
The old, white mouse cringed. How somebody who a long time ago had been frightened of and in total awe of him and the Rats of NIMH was now able to be so persuasive and insistent was beyond the old doctor. There was just way to keep a secret from this woman now.
When they had first met Mrs. Brisby had hardly dared to speak to him and now she treated him like a little boy who had been caught cheating in class. What was even worse was the fact that he actually felt just like one. The role of teacher appeared to have strengthened her self-esteem tremendously. In a way, this very change in the female's character was part of his concern. Maybe she was ready to learn about his musings. She definitely sounded as if she would not desist until he told her.
As the white-bearded rodent was still pondering this, the pair reached the Main Atrium. They descended down one of the many staircases that led to the central elevator, the one which would carry them to the Counsel Hall and from there to the Administrative Chamber.
Seeing that he had no other choice the white mouse let his shoulder's slump in submission. He rubbed his glasses on his apron, the way he usually did when trying to hide his nervousness, and finally spoke up again.
'If you must know, my dear, it has to do with the results of your last physical examination.'
A look of fear crossed Mrs. Brisby's face and her paw went to cover up the gasp that was forming in her throat.
'Am I... sick?' she finally whispered with trepidation.
'No, not at all!' Mr. Ages waved his right arm with emphasis as they made their way down the steps. 'You are as healthy as can be imagined. Even your sight problems are an astigmatism you must have had since childhood, not a sign of aging or disease. And that,' he emphasized after a small sigh, 'is exactly what confuses me.'
This time it was the female mouse that shook her head. 'I am sorry, but I don't understand.'
In the meanwhile the two mice had reached the main elevator, which rose majestically through the heights of the Atrium.
'Please do not be offended, my dear,' the physician implored, 'nobody deserves good health more than you do. But as a scientist I have to face certain facts. And the facts are,' Mr. Ages rasped, 'that you should not be feeling well at all, not at all.'
The white mouse pushed for the elevator before he explained his concerns further to the startled female who had simply stood in stunned silence.
'How long ago was it that we first met, my dear?'
After a few moments of worried thought Mrs. Brisby and replied, 'It must have been almost four years ago, back when Jonathan and I had brought Timothy because of his spider bite.'
Waving his glasses at the brown mouse for emphasis Mr. Ages nodded, 'Exactly! And since then you have not changed physically at all, at least you have not aged as much as I would have expected, or should have.'
Again there was only a lack of comprehension on the female's face. She had a bad feeling about where her friend was heading with his observations but also felt that now that she had pressed him for it she would have no other choice but to face the truth.
The elevator doors opened and Mr. Ages ushered her inside, wincing at the worry on her features. Once the doors closed and the ascent began he felt it was safe to continue.
'What I mean is,' he tried to express kindly, 'that you have never been to NIMH. You never underwent the treatments that allowed the Rats, your late husband, and myself to live as long as we do or to understand the things we do. A normal mouse only lives two years, three at the utmost, yet you don't show any significant signs of aging... after almost four years!'
Finally, a measure of understanding entered the female's features, but it was not one of comfort.
'You are saying that normally I should have...'
'I am sorry, but should have died of old age some time ago, my dear.'
As he saw the wave of shock passing over Mrs. Brisby's face the doctor hastily added, 'But there you are, alive and in perfect health. Not only that, but you can read and write as well as any of us now. All you needed was a pair of glasses.'
'Yes,' the brown mouse nodded with relief, 'I did, didn't I?'
'Exactly!' Mr. Ages explained with a raised finger. 'And that is what confuses me. Do not misunderstand me. I am glad that you are alive and well, my dear, even more so that you seem as bright,' and now he gave the widow a conspiratorial wink, 'in many ways even brighter, than certain members of the Rats of NIMH we both know.'
This actually caused the brown mouse to raise a paw to her muzzle again, only this time to hide a smile.
Seeing that his companion had apparently gotten over the initial shock of his revelations the physician continued in a soothing voice.
'So, there really is nothing to worry about. We should be glad you are in such good health. I just wish I could explain the why and how.'
As the elevator reached a stop and the doors began to open in front of the two passengers Mrs. Brisby, even though she didn't feel as much fear as she had when Mr. Ages had broached the subject, still wished that she could explain this new conundrum as well.
Matters she had never spent much thought on were beginning to take on the guise of mysteries; mysteries that she feared might hold as many dangers as they could hold wonders. Suddenly she had to think of the Shrew. If mice normally lived only for a short time, how long ago should she have died? She pushed the thought out of her mind as it made her fur bristle.
In front of the two mice the opening doors revealed a large, brightly light chamber decorated even more lavishly than the Main Atrium. This was the Council Hall. In an attempt to recreate the wonders the Rats of NIMH had left behind in their old home at the farm they had tried to fashion their new governmental hall in even greater splendor than their first one. The vaulted room was round rather than the rectangular design of its predecessor in the Rosebush. In this new version the Council Members were not divided between a main floor and a balcony level anymore. The Rats had decided to allow enough room on the ground floor to accommodate every single elected representative. Radiating from the central floor were eight large alcoves, in which Council Members could choose to stand or sit. Two additional opposing alcoves housed the elevator doors with a raised chairman's pulpit on top and the passage towards the Administrative Chamber on the opposing side.
'Goodness,' hushed Mrs. Brisby, 'it looks like the entire Council is here tonight.'
Peering around the large hall the white mouse snorted grumpily.
'That and more. Somebody must have worked the rumor mills, like Martin said.'
Mr. Ages was right.
Usually closed to the general public during official Council Meetings the great hall was freely accessible to anybody when not in use. As such, it had become a place of assembly for all sorts of events, private and public. Marriages were conducted here or simple meetings between friends and colleagues when the lounges spread throughout the colony felt inappropriate. Yet ever since the Council had approved Justin's notion to create a separate governing body to deal with matters of administration the Council Hall had gained immense popularity for all those amongst the Rats of NIMH who felt concern for the needs of the colony; and of course those who loved nothing better than gossip. The large number of visitors while the Chamber Meetings took place had forced the Guard to line the spaces between the alcoves with the large rats it employed as sentries. More than once arguments or political discussions between various factions had kindled violent outtakes and Philip, the current Captain of the Guard, had decided that he would not allow a free-range circus in the Council Hall. Thus far he and his staff had been able to contain them without violence, though he had been overheard commenting on the use of buckets of ice water and their effectiveness in cooling hot tempers.
Tonight the vast chamber was almost filled to capacity again. As Mrs. Brisby and the aging doctor, who actively ignored the throng, made their way towards the other side of the large room the widow exchanged glances with many of the assembled rats.
Right at the elevator none other than the Captain of the Guard was keeping an eye on the crowd, all the while he was giving a stern talking to two of his Lieutenants, Emily, responsible for recruitment and training, and Leon, who was in charge of the scouts. Looking at the way Philip rolled his eyes Mrs. Brisby assumed that the two Guard Lieutenants had been caught kissing again, or something to that effect. It was no secret that they were planning to marry, but the Captain had strong views about keeping duty and displays of affection separate.
From the speaker's pulpit three rat teenagers were watching the floor with varying degrees of interest, but perked up when they spotted the two mice passing the floor. In a manner of moments after the physician and his companion had entered the room the mutterings and mumblings all around reached a new high. For some reason Mrs. Brisby and the doctor had become the focus of tonight's gossip and both had a good idea what lay at the root of that.
Somebody had spread the news about Teresa's return. [Text Wrapping Break]
To make matters worse, not all the assembled Rats of NIMH looked upon the smaller rodents with favor. In one alcove a female and three male rats were throwing glances of unbridled loathing towards the pair of mice. These four were amongst those who sided with the views of Verilla, a minority in the colony, but nonetheless a cause of constant aggravation to the Brisby family. None of these rats had as of yet tried to openly discredit her or her children, but the widow was certain that they would love nothing better than to see them all expelled from the colony, or worse.
As luck would have it, another group of rats standing closer to the center of the hall was of a much friendlier sort. Elizabeth and her children had always gotten along well with the colony's Engineers, partially because Timothy was often called upon to help out when certain problems in new designs needed to be addressed. The four seasoned rats all gave the mice warm smiles as they passed. Arthur, the yellow-mustached Head of the Engineering Department even waved invitingly. It was nice to see the open camaraderie between the Department Head and his Engineers. Apart from Arthur, Hands, who had exchanged his work apron with a burgundy tunic, Gideon, a jovial rat who claimed to have been born across the Atlantic in Scotland, and Titus, looking like a bear of a rat, had all decided to stay in the Council Hall for the duration of the Chamber Meeting.
Of course Mrs. Brisby had no illusions that this was solely to show her and Mr. Ages support. After all, Hand's daughter Ratchet was the Chamber Representative for the Engineering Department. The four older rodents felt that, since they were dodging the responsibility to represent their Department themselves, they could at least give Ratchet a moral heads up by hanging around the Council Hall for a while.
Finally, the mice reached the alcove opposite from the elevator. The doors that led to the Administrative Chamber were open and waiting for them. As Mrs. Brisby eyed the corridor that ended in their destination a shiver ran down her spine. The path, or tunnel might be better way to describe it, was a hollowed tube connecting two large branches of the Great Oak. The largest housed the Council Hall, the smaller adjacent one held the Chamber. What had possessed the rat architects to mold the living tree to shape a connection between these two caverns in midair was beyond Mrs. Brisby, not to mention how they had managed the tree to cooperate. The final lunacy, in the mouse’s mind, had been to line the sides with huge expanses of glass, giving anyone traversing the passage the illusion of standing on a narrow bridge with nothing but the window-frames supporting them high above the ground. During the daytime Mrs. Brisby would have felt horribly exposed to predators in addition to the height. But during the night walking across to the Chamber Hall was an exercise in sheer terror. After all, who could tell how the lights in the glass-lined tunnel displayed her to all those unseen dangers lurking in the night?
She felt her resolve gave way, as it often threatened to do when faced with this particular part of the Chamber meeting’s requirements of her. But putting a paw on the female mouse's shoulder Mr. Ages steadied her and urged them to enter the walkway.
Both of them had a job to do tonight.
The candle had almost gone out in Justin’s office.
All the rooms and corridors of the vast colony secreted in the Great Oak were connected to electrical lights, of course. Yet for some unknown reason the current leader of the Rats of NIMH preferred to work by candlelight once the sun had set. It might have been a peculiarity picked up by his old, deceased mentor Nicodemus.
The office was spacious, almost luxurious. A vaulted ceiling rose over the large room, which gave the impression of a gothic church nave carved from wood. And just as in a church, the sides contained numerous alcoves separated by columns. Each of these was closed by ornate velvet blue curtains with gold trim and contained Justin’s personal library and other mysterious objects inherited from his predecessor. At the far end stood a wide wooden desk under a large circular stained glass window. During the day the sun painted marvelous colors into the otherwise foreboding chamber, an effect sorely lacking at this late hour. Now, the last light of the large candle barely illuminated the desk and the high-backed chair behind it. There, slumped over onto the desk’s surface, resting on a mound of papers and bathed in sparse candlelight, slept Justin.
A handsome middle-aged rat with a dark-brown pelt, the former captain of the guard still preferred to wear his simple, old uniform whenever possible. Justin had never felt comfortable with the idea of having to fill Nicodemus’ place, as if anyone ever could. The old rat had been a mystery to all, even until the very end. With his murder the new leader of the colony had had his work cut out in keeping the Rats of NIMH from deteriorating into a panic before the move to Thorn Valley had been completed. In the end, he had tried to emulate his mentor as much as possible to give the others a feeling of consistency. It had worked, partially. The remaining rats had pulled together and the move to their new home had been successful.
But it had been a charade. All the while Justin had felt like a fraud and a liar. He had feigned wisdom and certainty when in reality he had been as adrift as the rest of them. His assurances and purpose had been well-acted, yet the rat desperately wished he had felt the same way inside. Truth be told, he had been terrified. He had never doubted himself when he had been in charge of colony security in the old Rosebush. Yes, the safety of every single Rat of NIMH had been his responsibility, but somehow that had been a more tangible purpose. Now he had to embody the colony’s vision. And he just did not know what that vision was supposed to be. There was the Plan, living without theft, but what about the rest? What other purpose was there than survival? Being a guard was different than being a mentor. Justin imagined himself being cast in a role he did not feel, acting a life rather than living it in order to supply the people under his care with the guidance they needed. The strain was awful.
So, Justin worked. He poured over as many details of the new colony’s needs as he could, making sure that he always kept on top of things. Yet that never seemed to happen. The more issues got resolved the more concerns seemed to spring up. The more people he pleased, the more malcontent appeared to grow in spite of it. And all the while he had to look as if he knew what he was doing. The mantle of his office, which he loathed to wear, was heavy in both the figurative and real sense. Now Justin’s vestments were draped loosely over the back of the chair he had fallen asleep in while trying to work on his never-ending files. The cloak, which had been patterned after Nicodemus’ old trappings, was vast and cumbersome. He only wore it during public functions, which the rest of the Council had insisted on. Thankfully the tailors had managed to fashion it in a way that the slender rat could easily throw it right over his more comfortable guard tunic. Like his new position in life the vast cloak felt like a façade, burdensome and stifling, under which he feared to suffocate.
Draped over the chair’s other side hung the Stone. Ruby red, cast in luxurious gold, it was another mystery that baffled the recumbent rat. Back at the farm, while trying to move Mrs. Brisby’s house to safety, they had all seen it happen. The Stone had, somehow, someway, enabled the small mouse to single-handedly raise and move her heavy cement-block house out from the deep mud-puddle and into the safety of its new resting place yards away. There was no way to explain it. He had been there. He had seen everything, the lights, the movement, the whole thing. Yet what was it that he had seen? Was there such a thing as magic? Nicodemus himself had shown abilities that baffled many of his fellow rats, even frightened some. Justin had always tried not to think about the doors that had opened themselves to let the ancient rat pass, or the walking-cane that would rise into Nicodemus’ paw when bidden. When Mrs. Brisby had given him the Stone to keep he had hoped it would impart some insight into what he should do. It had never happened. The Stone remained a symbol, nothing more, another bauble Justin had to wear to give the image of leadership the colony seemed to crave.
Now, in fading glow of the candle, Justin slept. The silence was complete except for his regular breathing.
Then came the knock.
Justin did not sleep easily, so even the gentle tapping was enough to immediately startle him awake, although not without papers flying off the desk like leaves in a storm.
‘What? Who? Oh darn it…’
The rat tried to grasp as many of the flying sheets as he could.
The knock repeated, then the door was gently pushed ajar and Timothy Brisby poked his head inside, just in time to see Justin flailing to catch the last few pages of his notes.
‘Is this a bad time, Justin?’
The mouse grinned impishly.
Trying to be nonchalant the rat waved a free paw to invite the mouse inside.
‘Not at all. I just dozed off it seems and you startled me. What can I do for you?’
Closing the door behind him Timothy entered, carrying a cloth-covered bundle in his paws.
‘Well, for starters you could stop working yourself to the bone so you’d wind up sleeping in an actual bed again.’
Justin rolled his eyes.
‘I wish it was that easy.’
‘Well,‘ the mouse smiled as he placed the bundle reverently on the desk, ‘maybe this will cheer you up.’
The taller rodent looked down at the cloth and his voice became hushed.
‘You finished it.’
Nodding and grinning emphatically Timothy beamed with enthusiasm.
‘Yep, a few hours ago. Mind if I install it?’
Waving a hand to a curtain covering the alcove to the left of his desk the rat appeared unable to share his guest’s excitement.
‘Go right ahead. It’s not as if we even know if it will work… or how.’
Timothy leaned forward and winked.
‘Hey, have I ever made anything that didn’t work.’
Just before the colony’s leader was able to count off a few of the mouse’s previous mishaps on his fingers the other waves his own hands.
‘Okay, have I ever built anything that did not work in the end, after I got all the bugs out?’
Justin smiled and lowered his own hands.
‘No, that you haven’t. I just wish,’ the rat intoned as he sat himself down to order the papers in more neat piles, ‘that we had a better idea what this thing really is.’
The mouse rubbed his paws together gleefully.
‘Half the fun will be finding out.’
Then he turned serious.
‘Aren’t you a bit late for that Chamber Meeting?’
Justin’s head jerked up in a panic.
‘Dang it all…’
In a frenzy the rat grabbed the heavy cloak from the chair and, while running and scrambling towards the office door, tried to hold on to the notes he had prepared for the meeting. He bolted out of the chamber, slamming the door behind him.
Timothy silently counted while moving his lips. As he reached six the office door was thrown open again and a frantic Justin returned to grab the Stone hanging over the chair’s other side. In a whirlwind of activity with muttered curses of ‘Dung, dung, dung…’ the colony’s frazzled leader disappeared through the door a second time.
Shaking his head with a smile the mouse pulled the curtains away from the alcove and started at the large contraption inside. He did so with a bit of awe. Despite the fact that he himself had constructed it he felt as if it had halfway built itself, him only lending his hands. After a few moments he unwrapped the cloth, which revealed a beautiful ruby-red stone, similar to the one given to his mother by Nicodemus so long ago, but without any metal setting. No, this one had a different purpose. As Timothy carried it to the machine waiting in the alcove he felt a shiver of anticipation. This would be great.
Everyone was already seated in the round Chamber Hall, except Justin.
Similar to the Council Hall this room was also circular, but its décor was radically different. Unlike the brick-lined larger chamber for the Council this hall was carved from the native wood in undulating forms that gave the impression one was residing in the interlaced root-work of a tree. Within these shapes the Chamber member’s chairs were carved directly into the walls of the room as if they had grown this way. To the right of each chair, in one case to the left, each occupant had a small table carved from the grown wood as well. In the middle the roo was illuminated by a chandelier, which emulated glowing bunches of grapes casting the whole cavern into a soothing, light-blue luminance. The color had been chosen to evoke calm and clear thinking. Sadly, the effect did not appear to work on some of the occupants.
Sitting to the right of Justin’s vacant chair were Mr. Ages and Mr. Brisby, representing the medical and teaching/library departments respectively. To Mrs. Brisby’s right was Brutus, who, despite the vast size of the chair recesses, still appeared to be squeezed in places as he represented the colony’s guard contingent. To the left of Justin’s seat sat a young, black-blue colored rat with bright green eyes, wearing a purple tunic and stylish beret. Racso, as he called himself, had been representing the colony’s gardeners and field workers for over a year now despite his young age. To his left, in turn, sat none other than Ratchet, representing engineers, scientists and maintenance. The young female rat had exchanged her work clothes with a beautiful yellow-orange sleeveless dress, which echoed her sunny disposition. Occasionally Racso and her exchanged coy glances and more than once their paws embraced. Their plans to get engaged were no secret. One seat to the left was Gunther, representing cooks, pantry, and sanitation workers. Large of girth and easygoing the middle-aged rat had not even bothered to take off his cooking apron.
All of the assembled rodents appeared to be in amicable spirits and, with exception of the mute Brutus, were engaged in polite conversation. All, that is, except for the rat lady seated directly opposite Justin’s still vacant chair. Verilla, the same rat Cynthia had run by earlier in the day in the colony’s Atrium, was staring grimly at the empty chair opposite her, fingers drumming an angry staccato on the wooden table to her right. Occasionally casting disapproving glances at her fellow Chamber members the formally dressed rat gave the impression of festering malcontent, which was actually a very good description of her character. How she had conned her fellow artisans to represent them in the Chamber was a mystery. But her large minority following of discontents in the Council probably had something to do with it.
Finally, fast footfalls at the Chamber Hall entrance heralded the last remaining Chamber member, and leader of the colony.
With as much dignity as he could muster Justin, who had managed to pull on his cloak and the Stone while running through corridors and stairs at a records pace without loosing a single sheet of paper, took his seat at the table.
‘Good evening everyone. I apo…’
‘You’re late again.’
The poison in Verilla’s comment interrupted the male rat’s apology.
‘Well,’ Justin commented with a shrug, ‘I snagged this darned cloak a few times on the way.’
Allowing her eyes to close to slits the rat lady countered, ‘Maybe we need to find someone who can wear it without running into so many ‘snags’.’
Thankfully, Mr. Ages interrupted the vitriolic exchange by loudly clearing his throat.
‘Since we’re all here now, why don’t we get started? Some of like to get to bed not too late if you don’t mind.’
Thanking the old mouse with a wink and a smile Justin put down his papers and gestured for him to take the lead.
‘What’s the status in the medical department then?’
Ages, taking at a sheet of paper from his own pocket and looking at it, cleared his throat again as he adjusted his glasses.
‘No major injuries since the last meeting. Some minor sprains when one of the harvester vehicles lost its tracks and the normal cuts and bruises from kids rough-housing.’
The mouse’s voice saddened a bit.
‘Camilla is slowly declining. I do not know how long, but I fear she may not see the end of this month.’
That caused a round of silence. Even Verilla, who had gazed about menacingly the entire time, became somber and subdued. Lady Camilla had been respected by all. Widow to Nicodemus and one of the oldest of the original Rats of NIMH, her slow decent into death was proof that despite the treatments received at the hands of the humans, despite the Rats’ prolonged life-span and increased intelligence, they were still mortal.
‘Our attempt to,’ now Mr. Ages started to fidget a bit nervously, ‘isolate the cause for the spreading allergy has not yet been successful. We have ruled out a number of causes, but…’
Verilla slapped her right palm flat on her table.
‘You have been at this for three months. This is intolerable. This… this blight is spreading and nobody has found an answer or a cure.’
‘I assure you, Verilla, Martin and I are working as hard…’
‘And what would that half-breed youth know about medicine? We should have never allowed impure blood to dilute the purity of our colony like this. We…’
Justin’s voice cut in sharply.
‘There is no call for that. Let him finish.’
Mr. Ages, who now glowered back at the malcontent rat with equal venom, continued.
‘As I was saying, Martin, who we all know as a most capable physician and researcher, and I have been searching for the pathogen in question as fast as our resources allow. After Teresa left we have only had three doctors taking care of the entire colony and so our efforts…’
‘Hah!’ Verilla snorted, ‘And now that she is back without permission we will probably have to bear her feral mate as well!’
‘Verilla,’ now Justin’s voice lowered to a half-growl, ‘politics are for the Council, not the Chamber. So stop it!’
The older rat was about to reply when the colony’s leaders angry gaze managed to silence her. As dissatisfied as she was with Justin’s leadership, his anger still managed to cow her, for now.
‘The allergy’s symptoms,’ the mouse continued, ‘have not changed. Loss of pigmentation in the skin and fur and extreme light sensitivity seem to be all of it. The patches grow slowly, so we hope to find a remedy before they become more than a minor inconvenience.’
This time Verilla just snorted her disapproval while the rest of the Chamber thanked the mouse for his brief report.
The female mouse adjusted her glasses, trying to ignore the mounting tension in the room, and read from her own notes, stacked neatly in front of her.
‘Wear and tear in the library is at the usual levels, but we have ample supplies to copy new books. We may need to make new pens next year, but we should be good for this season.’
She raised a second sheet of paper.
‘Exams for the different grades show the usual results, although the older children seem to be doing more poorly than last year.’
Mrs. Brisby removed her glasses and looked at the others.
‘A lot of the youths seem to lack motivation for learning this year. Many have told us they do not care about work since there is so much food and free time.’
‘Why should they?’ Verilla interrupted.
‘With all our technology we make more food than we could ever eat, so why should they have to learn things they will never need to know?’
‘Madam,’ Mr. Ages intoned, ‘if we teach the children to be lazy than who will work when the rest of us are too old to? Just because we have more than enough workers now, doesn’t mean we won’t need young blood in the future.’
‘Well,’ Justin interceded to get the meeting back on course and avoid another argument, ‘thank you, Elizabeth. Can the teaching staff come up with some suggestions how to motivate the students more for the next meeting? That would be wonderful.’
‘Now,’ the brown rat eyed Brutus, ‘how are we doing on the security front?’
Raising her arms to the ceiling Verilla exclaimed, ‘Heaven help us!’
Trying to ignore the obnoxious female Brutus sat up straight and held up a large portable chalk-board. Due to his inability to speak the large rat had learned early how to use the board as fast means for communication. It read:
2 fights broken up.
2 youth arrests, same kid each time,
property damage, vandalism, repeat offender.
In the cell for two nights.
Again it was the old rat lady who interrupted.
‘You arrested my grandson like a common criminal, you thug! Nobody was living in that place anyway. We have so many empty apartments, what difference does it make? You had no right to lock him up.’
Casting an angry glance at the ranting rodent the large guard ran an eraser sponger over the tablet and wrote with speed.
Arrested 5 times in 2 months.
Each time no jail. This time he broke stuff.
Said guards are sissies.
The law is the law.
‘He is not,’ the rat lady almost hissed, ‘a criminal. He comes from an impeccable family, unlike some others right here.’
This time Verilla pointed her venomous gaze to Racso, who immediately blushed, but kept quiet. Ratchet, on the other hand, turned livid.
‘And what is that supposed to mean, Verilla?’
‘I would think,’ the older female sneered, ‘that if my father was murderer and traitor I would at least have the decency to stay away from polite society.’
Ratchet had a hard time resisting the urge to walk over to the other and slap her face.
‘What Jenner did was not Racso’s fault. You and your cronies already managed to chase away his mother and sister.’
‘And good riddance too, If you ask me.’
Justin’s angry shout silenced everyone. The usually jovial rat was standing up now, both paws with fingers clenched, boiling with rage, at the very edge of losing control as he growled through clenched teeth.
‘May I remind you, Verilla, that according to Chamber statutes any disorderly conduct at the meeting or disturbing of the peace may lead to forceful eviction by a guard? And tonight you have, in my opinion, been doing nothing but disturbing the peace.’
Verilla gave the leader of the colony a contemptuous sneer as she stood up herself, arms folded across her chest.
‘You would not dare.’
Sitting back to calm himself, Justin replied in a cold, judicious voice, ‘I hereby officially move to have Verilla removed by guard escort for repeated and deliberate disruption of the Chamber proceedings with intent to disrupt the peace. Anyone seconding?’
To the older rat’s shock all other occupants, with the exception of Brutus, responded with an immediate ‘Seconded!’ Then the large guard raised his board, on which in bold chalk letters was written: SECONDED!!!
Visibly shaken, trying to come up with something to say, Verilla stood rooted in place.
‘Now,’ sighed Justin, ‘,unless you sit down and allow the Chamber Meeting to commence without anymore of this nonsense, I will ask Brutus to walk you out, right down into the guard cells if need be.’
The rat lady began shaking with rage again, ‘You’ll regret this, Justin. I swear…’
Sighing again the brown rat looked at the guard, ‘Brutus?’
The towering rodent slowly raised himself from his chair.
As if on cue, Verilla immediately sat down, hiding her face behind her own stack of notes, obviously cowed.
Justin looked at all the other Chamber members. Their looks ranged from anger at the older rat to satisfaction of having her put in place, and even sadness. He felt tired, so tired. The former captain of the guard hated to act in this way. He had just threatened violence against an old lady, who weighed about half as much as he did. It stood against everything he held dear.
He just hoped that the rest of the Chamber Meeting would go better.